Like eating or sleeping, work is one of the most common human experiences. But it’s consuming more time than ever for the hardest-working Americans.
Kathryn Dekas, people analytics manager at Google and a Ross Ph.D graduate, wondered why people approached this essential life activity so differently — some see a job as a means to a paycheck, while others consider it a life passion.
In the first empirical study of the origins of work orientations, Dekas and Business Prof. Wayne Baker, chair of Management and Organizations at the Business School, surveyed 109 part-time MBA students about their conceptions of work.
“We don’t necessarily understand why people approach their work in different ways,” Dekas said. “It’s helpful for people to reflect on what work means to them — in other words, the main things they hope to achieve or experience through working — and ensure they’re making decisions accordingly.”
The study, to be published in the 2014 volume of Research in the Sociology of Work, suggests that parents are the most major influence on work orientation. It also found that the participant’s religious culture and the stability of a participant’s industry changed how he or she viewed the work.
Baker said this aligned with how parents impact other values, such as political leanings. Adolescence is a key time for parental socialization to influence work orientation, as one is still forming their values but is old enough to comprehend what values are.
Job, career and “calling” were defined as the three career orientations understood by individuals. Amy Wrzesniewski, now an associate professor at Yale University, established these categories in her business Ph.D. dissertation.
Those with a job orientation work principally for a source of income and are eager to retire. Career-oriented employees might be seen as the typical workaholic — they are eager to climb the ranks and derive their identity from their job. Finally, a calling orientation leads people to seek employment that positively affects others and fulfills their own passions.
These orientations are largely stable over a person’s life, Dekas said. For example, a father with a career orientation is most likely to raise a child with the same orientation. Interestingly enough, participants more closely mimicked their father’s orientations over their mother’s.
However, this leaning may be influenced by the gender norms surrounding most of the participants’ adolescence. The average age of survey participants was 31, and women were underrepresented in the working force in the 1980s. More than half of the working mothers of the participants worked in health care or education, fields that are not characterized by career mobility compared to managerial positions that the participants’ fathers may have held.
The researchers concluded it was likely that fathers were stronger occupational role models. Baker said he expected there would be a difference in the findings if the study if it were repeated in the coming decades.
Additionally, the report found that distressed industries force employees to shift to a job or career orientation, as participants employed in the auto industry demonstrated. A bigger meaning in a person’s career might be ignored if layoffs are looming.
“You may be a lot more focused on getting a job where you can make some money and get by,” Baker said.
Baker and Dekas also found that individuals raised in communities with a Protestant culture, such as the Netherlands or Great Britain, were more likely to have a job or career orientation. Baker links this correlation to the change in attitude toward work during the Protestant Reformation. She said that value in working hard and advancing in society is still cherished 500 years later.
“Work was no longer seen as something you just had to do,” Baker said. “Working hard, being frugal and investing wisely were all considered to be almost spiritual endeavors.”
The researchers highlighted the importance of learning one’s own career orientation and finding employment that matched it. Baker mentioned firms that hire top undergraduates and overwork them for a few years with a high salary might please a job-oriented person but alienate those with a calling orientation.
Dekas affirmed the need for some introspection to achieve happiness in a work-crazed environment.
“Are they looking for work that will provide them with a lot of money? Social status? Deep, genuine fulfillment? Many people look for all of these things, but most people can isolate one or two that are particularly important.”